Role Reversal: Worrying Over Your Parents

Remember when your parents were always hovering over you with a thousand worries when you were a kid? “Eat your vegetables” and making sure you ate enough was a daily discussion. Ugh! My parents worried about us getting sick. They worried if we didn’t wear a coat or if we got overheated during Texas summers. The teenage years brought statements like, “Please drive carefully,” and “Where are you going?”

The questions persisted after I moved out: “Are you getting enough sleep?” or “How long have you had that cold?” Even when I got married the worry continued: “Are you sure you can afford that?” or “Is your home safe?” Then came the worry over grandkids: ”Shouldn’t they go to the doctor?” But when the worry game flipped and I suddenly became the one worrying over my own parents, that was a game-changer!

My parents live four hours away in their own home. They have always been healthy and hearty and have never really experienced any medical problems, except for being diagnosed with high blood pressure. They were watching their salt intake and taking their meds, and all seemed OK.

But then one day, it wasn’t.

One day six years ago my dad had a brain injury. He had major surgery, ended up in the ICU, and life changed. It came out of nowhere, and it was scary. Since then, other scary stuff has come up. It hasn’t stopped and never will.

Food is a major concern with both parents now. My father’s diet has drastically changed due to health concerns. Eating healthy and enough are daily struggles. Salt and protein are huge issues. It doesn’t make for fun Thanksgiving meals, and eating out is a chore. My mother, on the other hand, tends to skip meals and loves sweets. “Mom, please eat your vegetables” is a statement I now direct at her.

I remember my dad driving on ice on many a winter morning. I also remember those long drives to and around Mexico. That’s some serious driving! But now my siblings and I have to worry about even short drives. We try to alternate taking my parents on longer drives to the doctor. There have been periods when my dad has been unable to drive at all. Groceries, post office visits, and bill paying have all become issues. When Dad has resumed driving, we have to worry if he can handle it. “Please drive carefully,” I tell him. I know he and I both cringe every time I say this.

When I call my parents now I always ask questions that I used to never ask. Sure, we talk about the kids, weather, sports, and my Tia Dora. But I am always listening for more. “Mom, are you getting enough sleep?” If I hear a raspy voice or a slight cough, I ask, “How long have you had that cold?” I listen for subtext. Do either of them sound more confused than normal? Discussions about the weather are so much more than small talk. If it’s hot, I worry if they are staying hydrated. If it is cold, it might make their arthritis act up. The question often arises, “Are you sure you don’t need to go to the doctor?”

But doctor visits can be complicated. Both parents have several doctors now, and scheduling appointments can be an ordeal. I remember asking Dad about the date of one of his doctor appointments, and he pulled a stack of appointment cards out of his front pocket and shuffled through them. That was pretty much the extent of his organization of medical appointments! My brother promptly created a Google calendar just for appointments. Now we all share it and update as needed. For my parents, who are not Google users, we keep a large calendar in their kitchen, and we ask them to write down their appointments as soon as they are made.

I am lucky that I have several siblings with whom to share these worries. Some of us handle certain aspects better than others, but we all try to do our fair share. Some of us have the trait of patience. Some of us have the trait to tune things out. Both can be equally important. We group chat and text to discuss upcoming decisions and plans. Sometimes we just vent frustrations and concerns. Sometimes we laugh at how we got here. We have tried to show my parents how to FaceTime on their iPad, and we get to laugh at how that works out. We compare notes on our different visits. Who showed my mom how to find the Spanish channels once they changed? Who showed Dad how to take pictures on the iPad? We also try to remember that hovering and always questioning can be annoying and disrespectful, and we try to ask for our parents’ wishes as we navigate decisions that need to be made. This role reversal isn’t easy, but like so many adulting roles, it’s an important one.